Tag Archives: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Who Do You Hang With? – Maybe It’s Time To Widen Your Circle; Really!

People are different.  And the more diversity between the people, the more differences there are.

So – here is the question of the day:  Do you always hang out with the same people – the same kinds of people? If so, maybe it’s time broaden your circle.

This simple advice is a key part of the message from Yale’s President Rick Levin to the arriving freshman class.   (I read this in this blog post by Arianna Huffington).  Here’s a key excerpt:

Levin pointed out how the students “come from all 50 states and 58 nations” and urged them (and their parents) to go “entirely outside the range of your past experience,” and “stretch yourself.” “If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and went to high schools just like your own,” he said, “you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you.”

I’ve read plenty of books that offer similar advice.  Like this:

Sticking to the people we already know is a tempting behavior.  But unlike some forms of dating, a networker isn’t looking to achieve only a single successful union.  Creating an enriching circle of trusted relationships requires one to be out there, in the mix, all the time.
(So, therefore):
Set a goal for yourself of initiating a meeting with one new person a week.  It doesn’t matter where or with whom.
Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone:  And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (The Ultimate Networker Reveals How to Build a Lifelong Community of Colleagues, Contacts, Friends, and Mentors)


Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity.  They are rare, much rarer than you think.  Remember that positive Black Swans have a necessary first step:  you need to be exposed to them.  If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned:  you may never see such a window open up again.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE

In my own life, I am always learning from the wide array of people I “hang with.”  I speak monthly at the Urban Engagement Book Club, which includes a true mix of people:  non-profit leaders, business folks, some people who are pretty much in the homeless category, retired people…  I have experienced no other mix of people like it in my lifetime.

And I teach at a local community college.  There are people from multiple ethnic backgrounds, and all levels of the economic spectrum.  My students teach me so much every semester.

And then we have the audience of business leaders who attend the First Friday Book Synopsis.

And I lead regular sessions (Current Events and reading/discussion groups) with retired people.

You put all of these together, and my life is a rich, diverse set of moments that represent genuine diversity.

But I need to become even more intentional about this – as, I suspect, you do.  So, here some suggestions for us all:

1)    Go to at least one gathering, on a regular basis, that is made up of people who are not all “like you.”
2)    Read authors, and types of books, that are outside of your beaten path, and represent points of view that you disagree with.
3)    Look for another “new” person, and some new event, regularly.

Diversity is good for us.  But experiencing true diversity will not happen by accident.  You have to get intentional about it.  There are people to meet, ideas to discover, viewpoints to ponder.

Hanging with people who are not all just like you may be the most neglected learning discipline of them all.

What if there are no real Black Swans at all? — (And the “Dynamite Prize in Economics” goes to… Alan Greenspan)

Alan Greenspan, "prize winner"

News item:  Alan Greenspan is the recipient of this year’s Dynamite Prize in Economics  as “the economist most responsible for causing the Global Financial Crisis.” The once-lauded Federal Reserve chairman has been awarded the “Dynamite Prize In Economics” by his fellow economists, according to the blog Real-World Economics Review.  The Real World Economics Review Blog has over 11,000 subscribers, and they have named Alan Greenspan its recipient for this prize.  Finishing second and third were Milton Freidman and Lawrence Summers.    (No, receiving this prize is not a good thing).  Here is a line from the article:

This blog established the prize in response to attempts by economists to evade responsibility for the crisis by calling it an unpredictable, “Black Swan” event. In reality, the public perception that economic theories and policies helped cause the crisis is correct.

(I first read about this here on the Huffington Post).

Their next prize will go the Revere Award winner:

The economics establishment has attempted to evade responsibility for the Global Financial Collapse by calling it an unpredictable, “Black Swan” event.  But in fact some non-neoclassical economists foresaw the crisis and warned the public of its approach. The Revere Award aims to give these economists the professional and public recognition that they deserve, to encourage others to utilize their methods, and to increase the likelihood that, for the benefit of humankind, empirically responsible economists will be listened to in the future.

maybe not all "black swans" are actually black swans

And I got to thinking.  I have presented a synopsis of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  I like the book, and I have bought into the philosophy of the book pretty enthusiastically.  The book says that “nobody knows anything.”   Here are the characteristics of a black swan:

• A Black Swan is an event which follows three attributes:
• First, it is an outlier.  (rarity)
• Second, it carries an extreme impact.
• Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.  (retrospective, though not prospective, predictability).

But these economists definitely call into question the explanation of the current crisis as an actual example of a “black swan.”  And, I have been quite intrigued by Gawande’s simple formulation:  the two great problems are ignorance and ineptitude.  (see my earlier post here).

Maybe some of the events that we label as “black swans” are in fact knowable.  The trick is to overcome enough ignorance, and find the right experts with the right knowledge, to be better prepared and make better decisions and take better steps…  In other words, the crisis may not have been the result of ignorance, but ineptitude.

This much is clear.  Some economists missed it – and others (fewer) got it right.  It looks like we may have listened to the wrong economists.

Anyway, I’m intrigued by all this.

A Quote for the day — from The Black Swan

If you are like me, whenever you re-read a book, or revisit your own highlights of a book, you have different quotes jump out at you.  And, in my case, this especially happens when I present a synopsis a second, or third time.

Well, I presented my synopsis of The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the third time in the last few weeks just last night.  And in presenting it, this quote seemed to grab me more than usual.  I think it is really, really true to our experience:

“We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn…”

And the fact that we do not know that we don’t learn that we don’t learn can be really bad…


To purchase my synopsis of The Black Swan, with audio + handout, go to our companion web site, 15minutebusinesssbooks.com.

“Nobody Knows Anything” — Maybe Including Management Consultants

The Black SwanOne of the ongoing discussions that I am having, in my own head and with others, is just how reliable all of these studies about success and efficiency really are.  Does anybody know anything?  In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb quotes “the legendary screenwriter William Goldman, who was said to have shouted ‘Nobody knows anything.’”

The Black Swan describes the problem as this:  the world is not predictable, the world is random, and black swans genuinely throw us into a new set of problems, reminding us that “nobody knows anything.”  (All swans were known to be white until someone went to Australia and saw a Black swan –thus, a black swan is any new happening/discovery that throws all of our previous “knowledge” overboard).  Taleb argues that we are so in need of certainty that:  “We have seen how good we are at narrating backward, at inventing stories that convince us that we understand the past.”

I write this to discuss another aspect of this problem – do management consultants really know anything?  I admire the work they do.  They work hard, approach their tasks with great seriousness, and genuinely try to help companies do better.  But the question is one of actual capability – do they really know what they think they know?

That is the question raised by an extensive article in The New Yorker, NOT SO FAST: Scientific management started as a way to work. How did it become a way of life? by Jill Lepore.  (Read it here).

The article quotes from the book The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong by Matthew Stewart, which I have blogged about before in my post Are Consultants Worth Their Pay? — Are there genuine experts that provide value? (which you can read here).The Management Myth

The New Yorker article begins with this:

Ordering people around, which used to be just a way to get things done, was elevated to a science in October of 1910, when Louis Brandeis, a fifty-three-year-old lawyer from Boston, held a meeting at an apartment in New York with a bunch of experts who, at Brandeis’s urging, decided to call what they were experts at “scientific management.” Everyone there—including Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, best known today as the parents in “Cheaper by the Dozen”—had contracted “Tayloritis”: they were enthralled by an industrial engineer from Philadelphia named Frederick Winslow Taylor, who had been ordering people around, scientifically, for years. Speedy Taylor, as he was called, had invented a new way to make money. He would get himself hired by some business; spend a while watching people work, stopwatch and slide rule in hand; write a report telling them how to do their work faster; and then submit an astronomical bill for his services. He is the “Father of Scientific Management” (it says so on his tombstone), and, by any rational calculation, the grandfather of management consulting.
Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side. In “The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong” (Norton; $27.95), Matthew Stewart points out what Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago: Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success. As it happens, Stewart did the same things during his seven years as a management consultant; fudging, lying, and inflating, he says, are the profession’s stock-in-trade.

And here is a description of how this approach “worked:”

Efficiency -- from Work to Home (from The New Yorker)

Efficiency -- from Work to Home (from The New Yorker)

Taylor is the mortar, and the Gilbreths the bricks, of every American business school. But it was Brandeis who brought Taylor national and international acclaim. He could not, for all that, have saved the railroads a million dollars a day—the number was, as a canny reporter noted, the “merest moonshine”—because, despite the parade of experts and algorithms, the figure was based on little more than a ballpark estimate that the railroads were about five per cent inefficient. That’s the way Taylorism usually worked. How did Taylor arrive at forty-seven and a half tons for Bethlehem Steel? He chose twelve “large, powerful Hungarians,” observed them for an hour, and calculated that, at the rate they were working, they were loading twenty-four tons of pig iron per man per day. Then he handpicked ten men and dared them to load sixteen and a half tons as fast as they could. They managed to do it in fourteen minutes; this yields a rate of seventy-one tons per man per ten-hour day. Taylor inexplicably rounded up the number to seventy-five. To get to forty-seven and a half, he reduced seventy-five by about forty per cent, claiming that this represented a work-to-rest ratio of the “law of heavy laboring.” Workers who protested the new standards were fired. Only one—the best approximation of an actual Schmidt was a man named Henry Noll—loaded anything close to forty-seven and a half tons in a single day, a rate that was, in any case, not sustainable. After providing two years of consulting services, Taylor billed the company a hundred thousand dollars (which works out to something like two and a half million dollars today), and then he was fired.

It reminds me of the fact, now widely know, that in the modern classic In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman “made up’ some of the numbers – “faked the data.”  Though the phrase “faked the data” did not come directly from the mouth of Peters, there is certainly an acknowledgement that the numbers were not fully pure.  Here’s the quote by Peters from an article in 2001 in Fast Company:

This is pretty small beer, but for what it’s worth, okay, I confess: We faked the data. A lot of people suggested it at the time. The big question was, How did you end up viewing these companies as “excellent” companies? A little while later, when a bunch of the “excellent” companies started to have some down years, that also became a huge accusation: If these companies are so excellent, Peters, then why are they doing so badly now? Which I’d say pretty much misses the point.
[In] Search [of Excellence] started out as a study of 62 companies. How did we come up with them? We went around to McKinsey’s partners and to a bunch of other smart people who were deeply involved and seriously engaged in the world of business and asked, Who’s cool? Who’s doing cool work? Where is there great stuff going on? And which companies genuinely get it? That very direct approach generated a list of 62 companies, which led to interviews with the people at those companies. Then, because McKinsey is McKinsey, we felt that we had to come up with some quantitative measures of performance. Those measures dropped the list from 62 to 43 companies. General Electric, for example, was on the list of 62 companies but didn’t make the cut to 43 — which shows you how “stupid” raw insight is and how “smart” tough-minded metrics can be.
Were there companies that, in retrospect, didn’t belong on the list of 43? I only have one word to say: Atari.
Was our process fundamentally sound? Absolutely! If you want to go find smart people who are doing cool stuff from which you can learn the most useful, cutting-edge principles, then do what we did with Search: Start by using common sense, by trusting your instincts, and by soliciting the views of “strange” (that is, nonconventional) people. You can always worry about proving the facts later.

Notice that last line, You can always worry about proving the facts later, and remember the Taleb quote:  “We have seen how good we are at narrating backward, at inventing stories that convince us that we understand the past.”

We already know that not all the companies in In Search of Excellence, and later in Good to Great, maintained their place of excellence/greatness.  Collins has followed up with How the Mighty Fall, wresting with this problem.

I think we need to keep seeking the knowledge and wisdom we need to discover what makes a company great, and then what keeps a company great.  But at the end of the day, I’m not sure we will ever “know.”  And that is ok – if we acknowledge our limitations.  But when “experts” imply that they do know, and then predictions/projections do not come true, or remain true, it calls into question other observations and findings.  And when numbers are fudged, or even made up, it absolutely undermines all credibility.  Some management consultants fudge their numbers.  And any fudging of numbers can deal a serious blow to credibility.  And when numbers are fudged, companies think they know more than they actually know.

Management consultants can be valuable.  But ultimately, who really knows anything?  Or, to put it another way, is management consulting actually a science?  Or is it more of an art, imprecise, requiring an extra-heavy dose of ethics because of the imprecision involved?

Here’s one more thought from the New Yorker article:
Business schools have been indicted before. Earning an M.B.A. has been found to have little correlation with later business success. Business isn’t a science, critics say; it’s a set of skills, best learned on the job. Some business schools, accused of teaching nothing so much as greed, now offer ethics courses. Stewart argues that this whole conversation, about people, production, wealth, and virtue, is a conversation about ethics, and is better had within a liberal-arts curriculum.


You might want to also read my post Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books.

You can purchase my synopses of The Black Swan, and Karl Krayer’s synopsis of Good to Great, with audio + handout, at our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.